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National Security Affairs: A User's Guide

April 2014

This document is intended to assist you in managing your course of study in NSA. It answers the questions the faculty and staff are most frequently asked and disentangles some of the puzzles that arise because of the way NPS operates. Most curricula at NPS are managed more strictly than those in NSA. Our department must work within budgetary and technical systems that are designed to support those curricula. The free-form quality of NSA programs reflects the preference of our curriculum sponsors, and the nature of what we teach—national and international security, politics, strategy, history, economics, and so on. These constitute perennially moving targets intellectually, and keeping up requires mental and organizational agility by all concerned.

The NPS Catalogue

The NPS catalogue is the basic source of information about NSA degree requirements.The program description that is in place during your first quarter establishes the requirements you must meet to graduate. Subsequent changes may present additional alternatives for accomplishing those requirements, but the requirements themselves will not become more stringent. If the department decides tomorrow to increase the number of required courses in your curriculum, that change will apply to the next group of students who enter the program, not to you. On the other hand, if the requirements for your degree program become more flexible, you are allowed to take advantage of that if you like.

Academic Associates

Every NSA curriculum is supervised by a member of the faculty know as the Academic Associate (AA). The AA is the only person who can grant exceptions to formal academic requirements and is, in general, your principal source of advice about program planning once you arrive at NPS. The AA’s responsibility does not extend to looking over your shoulder. That is impossible, and completely inappropriate. The AA, like the rest of the faculty, is here to help you, not to police you. Insuring that your course of study matches up to requirements is your responsibility . NSA departmental rules are basically simple, and exceptions are not hard to obtain if they are sought in advance and for good reason.

Course Selection

NSA’s catalogue pages list more courses than the faculty can teach in a year. There is no point signing up for courses that aren’t going to be taught. This is the single most authoritative source of information both about what will be taught, and about what counts for what in terms of curricular requirements. This spreadsheet is maintained far more frequently than the NPS catalogue, for instance, and will reflect changes that have not yet been incorporated there.

The first draft of each year’s academic schedule is generally available for planning purposes toward the end of Winter quarter of the preceding year. It will inevitably change, sometimes at short notice, in response to competing demands on faculty time. The on-line schedule is regularly maintained to reflect these changes.

You should consult the posted list before adding or dropping courses. Do not pick courses that are not on the list. The fact that your AA approves your enrollment in a non-existent course does not mean the course will be taught. It means you will just have to choose from what is available when the time comes.

The Perfect Matrix

There is no perfect matrix. There are, however, some general concepts that can help you develop a coherent program. Unfortunately, like the principles of war, those concepts are pretty much impossible to follow simultaneously. You must do your best.

At the end of this document there is a schematic diagram of NSA Curricula that illustrates what well-designed matrices look like. These are ideal types, which must be adapted to a wide range of circumstances, and often end up looking very different in practice. You should not go to any great trouble to duplicate them. But let them provide inspiration if possible. They show the natural and logical progression of work in any academic program, which is from less specialized / introductory to more specialized / advanced work. They also show something that may not be obvious, which is that despite the diversity of programs we offer, all our curricula represent reasonably comparable levels of academic effort.

  • Departmental Core Courses are best taken toward the beginning of your program. NS3011 in particular only makes sense if you take it in the first (or, at worst, the second) quarter. As for the others, it is best to take them early, but in this matter as in all others reality will impose itself on any set of rules. You may end up pushing core courses downstream in order to take courses in your curriculum that aren’t going to come around again during your stay with us. Fair enough, as long as it all comes out even in the end. Keep in mind that departmental core course are sometimes prerequisites for 4000-level seminars—another reason to get them done early if you can.
  • Curricular Core and Elective Courses are about the particular subject you are studying, which may be a region (e.g. Middle East) or a generic topic in security studies (e.g. Counterterrorism). Curricular core courses are required of everyone in a particular curriculum, and are taught at least annually. Curricular electives vary from year to year, and are seldom taught more than once in twelve months. The fact that many courses are only taught once per year is especially important if you will only be here for four quarters. Never assume that a course you need or wish to take will come around again unless it is actually on the published schedule. Particularly if you will be writing a thesis, you should take curricular core and elective courses right from start, because you will want as much background as possible in your subject when the time comes to develop your thesis topic. Part of your AA’s job is to provide advice in choosing among our course offerings, and you should not hesitate to ask for assistance if you need it.

    The on-line course schedule provides up-to-date information about what courses satisfy requirements in each curriculum, including new courses that may not be in the catalogue. If you see a course being offered that you believe is appropriate as a curricular elective (perhaps because it matches up to your specific interests), and it is not identified as such, ask your AA if it can count.

  • General electives can be chosen from among the courses offered at NSA or other departments within NPS, provided you are fulfilling course requirements for your curriculum. You are limited to two courses from outside the NSA department with the approval of your Academic Associate prior to enrollment. General electives should make some kind of sense in relation to your research or other professional interests. They tend to make more sense toward the end of your program than at the beginning. Note that JPME courses are not offered by NPS, and are not required by any NSA program. JPME courses may not be taken as overloads or in lieu of general electives, since they do not convey credit toward an NPS degree.
  • Language courses are a special species of general elective, because, being numbered below 3000, they don’t count for graduate credit. Nevertheless you are allowed to choose them if you like, and also to take them as overloads. They are the only overloads that are routinely allowed in the department.

    We try to offer courses in the major world languages (e.g. Arabic) fairly frequently. If you wish to study a relatively exotic language (e.g. Urdu), you can sometimes do so via the Continuing Education program at DLI. It is your responsibility to make the necessary arrangements with them. Once you have done so, you can get credit by enrolling in NS2079: Foreign Language Maintenance .

  • Thesis-related courses. NS4080: Thesis Proposal , should normally be taken in the third quarter of a 15-month program, and in the fourth quarter of an 18-month program—that is, three quarters prior to your intended graduation. NS4080 is prerequisite to NS0810: Thesis Research , which thesis-writers may take three times during their final two quarters (and must take at least once, so the Registrar knows you are writing a thesis). NS4080 is a Pass/Fail course, and “Incompletes” are not allowed for any reason. Your proposal will be due no later than graduation day of the quarter in which you take NS4080, and getting it done on time is part of what it means to pass. If you fail you must re-take the course as an overload the following quarter. Even students who fail NS4080 are allowed to take NS0810 in subsequent quarters, however.


PYTHON is the system NPS uses to create the schedule and manage academic records. In general you should think of PYTHON as a record-keeping system, not a communications system. There is a little box in PYTHON that allows you to comment on or explain your course choices. There is no need to explain choices that fall within the rules. Conversely, if you wish to do anything substantially out of the ordinary, and you need more than a few words to explain what you are up to, always send an email or make an appointment to discuss what you have in mind with your AA first. PYTHON is not the place to seek exceptions to standard curricular requirements.

When you enter a course in PYTHON it requires you to characterize it in one of three categories: required, curricular elective, or general elective. These categories resemble those we use in the department, but they are not identical, and have a different purpose. PYTHON’s categories are intended to prioritize inputs to the scheduling process, not to describe the role of a course in your academic program. For that reason it is not always obvious how to characterize NSA courses when you input them PYTHON. The following match-ups are best:

NSA Category
PYTHON Category
Disciplinary core coursesRequired
Curricular core coursesRequired
Thesis courses (NS4080 / NS0810)Required
Comprehensive exam (NS0811)Required
English language courses for int’l studentsRequired
NS4059 for Navy Intel officersRequired
Follow-on language at DLIRequired
Curricular electivesCurricular Elective
2000-level foreign language coursesGeneral Elective
General electivesGeneral Elective
JPME coursesGeneral Elective
Courses in other NPS Departments [unless required]General Elective

PYTHON’s categories have no meaning except in relation to its own internal processes. Given the free-standing nature of NSA curricula—we rarely require courses in other departments, nor do other departments normally require ours—the prioritization algorithm that underlies PYTHON’s three categories will make little practical difference for you. In any event, the categories and policies described under “The Perfect Matrix,” above, are the ones that matter. The way in which you characterize a course in PYTHON will have no effect on whether you have satisfied the published requirements of your curriculum.

Enrollment Caps

Many courses in NSA have limits on enrollment. This is a management tool for us, and is not intended to present unreasonable hurdles for you—though it is true that some courses get maxed out occasionally. If, after following the procedures described below, you end up being denied admission to a course that is required for your program, be sure to let your AA know. Otherwise, if you cannot persuade the professor to admit you, you just have to pick something else.

If you can persuade the professor to admit you, then you can be added to the course despite the presence of the cap. The only people in the department who can do this are the Associate Chair for Instruction and our two Ed Techs. The best procedure is to have the professor concerned send an email to the Associate Chair giving his permission for you to be added to the course. You then will be, he approves the Add, and all is well.


Nearly all NSA courses count for 4 hours of graduate credit. Four such courses add up to 16 hours, which is toward the high end of what counts as a full load at NPS. Taking more than 16 hours in a quarter is rarely allowed. The only routine exceptions are language courses: English for international students, foreign languages for Americans. Overloads may sometimes be necessary because courses in your curriculum are not evenly distributed throughout the year—a bad thing, but sometimes unavoidable. Overloads may also be necessary if your sponsor has sent you here for fewer quarters than are required to complete your program under the rules, or of your planned course of study is cut short by new orders. We realize that there is nothing you can do about this sort of thing, and will do what we can to help you make the best of your situation. Absent such compelling circumstances, overloads are not permitted in NSA.

Phantom Overloads

It is tempting to enroll in more courses than you intend to take, with the idea that you will drop some early in the quarter once you see the schedule or have a chance to try them out. This is also not permitted. Again: AAs won’t approve overloads unless they make programmatic sense. Every course you select in PYTHON creates constraints on an already heavily burdened scheduling process. The significance of this problem only tends to become apparent to students after they find themselves is a required class that is scheduled from 5-6 on Wednesday and Thursday, and 10-12 on Friday. Such things happen all the time at NPS, to the point where scheduling classes on Saturdays has been seriously discussed. The only remedy is to limit inputs to the scheduling system to what is essential for planning: a normal load for every student, and no more.

Gaming the system is not tolerated. If you want more details about a future course, ask the professor who will be teaching it before you sign up. If you are still interested in some kind of hedging strategy, in the event that a course you want to take doesn’t work out for some reason, note that PYTHON allows you to select prioritized alternatives when choosing general and curricular electives. If there are four courses you are interest in, and you have space in your schedule for two of them, you will not be allowed to sign up for all four. But you are allowed to sign up for your two favorites, and list the other three under each of them as alternatives.


The Naval War College teaches a four-course sequence at NPS that conveys JPME Phase I certification. If you are required by your sponsor to complete the sequence while you are here, time will have been be built into your program for it. If your sponsor does not require you to take JPME, however, you cannot do so as a matter of convenience. JPME courses may not be taken as overloads, nor in lieu of general electives. They do not convey credit toward an NPS degree.

Language Study at the Defense Language Institute

NPS's close proximity to the Defense Language Institute provides opportunities for synergy between the two institutions. All of NSA's Regional Security curricula (681-84) allow students to substitute successful completion of language training, combined with successful passage of a comprehensive examination, for the Master's thesis that is a normal graduation requirement at NPS. For purposes of obtaining an NPS degree, successful completion of language training means that you have achieved either a 3.0 GPA in course work at DLI, or that you have passed the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) with a minimum score of 2 / 2 / 1+ upon completion of a language program at DLI.

Directed Reading and Directed Research

NS3079: Directed Reading, and NS4079: Directed Research. are intended to allow you to pursue specialized interests under the supervision of one of our faculty. Directed Reading and Research courses are arranged via a paper form that can be obtained from one of our Ed Techs, or from a rack near the NSA main office. Requests to take either NS3079 or NS4079 will rarely be granted more than once. Directed reading and research courses can only be taught by the department’s full-time faculty.

Special Topics

NSA offers a number of “Special Topics” courses, whose contents vary from one quarter to the next. These exist to allow faculty to teach courses on subjects of immediate topical interest, or that derive from current research, or are simply too new to have made it into the catalogue. Special Topics courses count as curricular electives if their contents are relevant to your area of concentration. This information is noted on the schedule posted on the NSA web site, which is also the only place where you can find out what the “special topic” actually is. PYTHON has no means of communicating that information. You are allowed to take Special Topics courses multiple times even if the number is the same, provided the topic is different.


An “Incomplete” is a place-holder grade indicating that a professor has allowed you extra time to satisfy course requirements. Professors are not required to give Incompletes, and may impose a grade penalty for doing so. An “Incomplete” must be cleared by graduation day of the next quarter. After that it automatically turns into a failing grade (“X”), which cannot be altered unless it is awarded as the result of a mistake by the professor. You are allowed to retake a course you have failed, and if you pass it the second time around it is the second grade that counts in calculating your QPR; but the recorded failure is permanent, just the same.

Validating Courses

Validating a course means you are excused from taking it because you have already taken a substantially similar graduate-level course at another university. Validation is only worthwhile, and is only allowed, if there is some other course you can take that makes more sense than the one you are validating. A validated course does not convey academic credit, and does not alter the requirement to maintain a full-time load. Only graduate courses taken in the last five years, and in which you received an above-average grade (A or A-), can be used to validate NSA courses. Courses taken at other DoD schools, or in other NPS departments, do not count.

Course validation is accomplished administratively via PYTHON. As a practical matter, however, the first step is to provide your AA with a syllabus of your earlier course and a transcript showing your grade. He or she will also want to know what you intend to take in lieu of the course you wish to validate. If the overall plan sounds reasonable the AA will send your materials to the professor who is teaching the course to be validated. If the professor agrees that your prior work is comparable to the NSA course in question, then you can enter the request in PYTHON, and we’re back in the world of electrons.

Routine Paperwork that Requires a Signature

Routine paperwork means AFIT Ed Plans, thesis proposals, and pretty much anything that requires an official paper form. Unless you have reason to think that getting somebody to sign off on something will require special explanation, you should just leave whatever it is in the racks outside faculty offices or in the mailboxes in Gl 319. It is a waste of time trying to find people just to hand them a piece of paper. If there is a problem they will let you know. If there is no problem they will sign whatever needs signing, and either return it to you or push it along to the next name on the chop chain.

Describing paperwork as routine does not mean it is pro forma . Some of it is, some not. Do not expect anyone on the faculty to sign anything without having had a chance to read it. The turn-around time on a thesis proposal will almost always be several days at least.

Comprehensive Exams

If you are taking comps you must enroll in NS0811 in your final quarter. NS0811 is not intended to be taken as an overload. It is intended to provide time for you to prepare for the exam.

Thesis Extensions

If you must write a thesis and fail to finish on time you are entitled to a one-year extension. If one year is insufficient, you can apply to the department for two more one-year extensions. If, after three years, you are still not done, you can apply for a fourth (final) extension, which requires Academic Council approval. The first extension is never refused, but it does require some paperwork. You can get the relevant form from NSA’s EdTech, Heather Eldridge. Extensions beyond the first one are not automatic, and require evidence of progress.

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All information contained herein has been approved for release by the NPS Public Affairs Officer.
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